Five Problems “Bible Believers” Face

The first major problem for evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists is preliminary assumptions made about the Bible. Starting off with, the term, “THE Bible.” It is not A book, but a series of (often unrelated) letters, poems, laws, prophecies, warnings, instructions, historical propaganda, creation myth, etc). Fundamentalists largely ignore this and attempt a broad scale synthesis, forcing scripture to conform to their presuppositions about it. 

 Secondly, the “word of God,” small letter “w.” Fundamentalism, a hundred years ago, in its reaction to textual criticism, mistrust of science, the suffragette movement and desegregation, arbitrarily decided to call the Bible “inerrant” so that key verses could be pulled out of original context to combat evolution, the woman’s right to vote, and the “Negro” from equality with Whites. The result has been, as Roger E. Olson points out in his “Reformed and Always Reforming,” a church that has become stagnant and cannot reform itself any longer. Once you have nailed all your theology about God down, and it is based on inerrancy, there is nothing more to learn. Evangelicals have an exclusive corner on the TRUTH!

 Thirdly, evangelicals are thoroughly docetic, that is, scripture appears to be human but with humanity essentially strained out. The result of this is not a living series of documents that we can wrestle with and see our imperfect selves in, but a prodigious tomb of encyclopedic propositions on the nature of God.  The Bible becomes a rule book instead of a guide to the Kingdom.

 Fourthly, scripture is put on par with Christ, rather than allowing (as Jesus did in his ministry) to stand above scripture and interpret it for us. Instead of Christ-followers we have a large group who are “Bible-believers,” with the defense of an inerrant scripture taking precedence over “true religion” which is taking care of those who are marginalized and to avoid improper entanglements with “the world.” As we have seen historically, those who defend the inerrancy of scripture loudest, have been the most instrumental in marginalizing those with a different skin color, different religion or those who have a vagina and uterus. Inerrancy killed 100s of thousands in the American Civil War, all because a group of people with an inerrant text saw in the Bible the excuse to own other human beings.

 Lastly, Jesus was not, contrary to what evangelicals believe, a particularly observant Jew. His treatment of the Sabbath was scandalous, in the Sermon on the Mount, he twisted laws that hurt others, that were violent, into loving laws, something evangelicals seem to have a hard time grasping or promoting politically. The result of ignoring how Jesus replaced the Laws of Moses with the Law of Love, has been the biggest failure of evangelicalism.

“I believe the whole Bible”

How often I have heard this emphatic statement from fellow Christians, often followed by another declaration, “I believe the CLEAR teaching of scripture.” What is not understood is that we all read the Bible through “lenses.” Those lenses, whether they be cultural, or derive from a certain theological framework, (Dispensational, Catholic, Reformed, etc.) change the meaning and intent of the original writers. More often than not, we skip over the original intent and situation the authors were dealing with to arrive at a simplified message of “what the Bible is saying to me.” While it is good to seek directions and application from scripture, we often prefer to bend the author’s statement to fit our own racial, political and cultural biases.

Part of this is due, no doubt, to the particular individualistic bent of American Christianity, and partially due to the Protestant reformation’s rescue of scripture from an ecclesiastical elitist priesthood, declaring the “priesthood of all believers,” in a sense, putting scriptural interpretation into the hands of the masses. 

Having gone through seminary doesn’t make me an authority on theology, but it has given me a unique understanding of HOW biblical interpretation ACTUALLY works in our churches. The term “Bible believing church” is actually a bit misleading. A more truthful statement would be: “we are a church that interprets the Bible following the framework of belief devised by John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Hodge or (insert your favorite theologian).”

Most “Bible churches” are either thinly veiled Calvinist or, in the case of those Pentecostal, an amalgamation of dispensational authors and the “Princeton School of Theology,” a 19th century reformed view of scripture. What few parishioners seem to realize, is that their pastor, priest or minister has been TRAINED TO READ THE BIBLE A CERTAIN WAY. While exegesis in the original languages is taught, the APPLICATION of scripture is almost always put into some sort of systemized school of interpretation. When I was a seminary student it was Charles Hodge and B B Warfield, two systematic theologians who followed the reformed Princeton School of thinking of the late 19th century that formed our framework. Today, in many seminaries and Bible schools it has given way to the systematic theology of Wayne Grudem, which is a rehash of Hodge.

What has happened in American churches and denominations is that we have fallen into different camps theologically speaking, whether liberal, fundamentalist or conservative, each thinking they are truly disseminating the “truth” of scripture, while, in reality, the unique historical situations the original authors faced and were concerned with are overlooked in an attempt to make the writings directly relevant to today. Jesus was not a liberal, he was not a conservative, he was not a socialist, he was not a capitalist. Paul did not preach against  “homosexuality,” (a 20th century term), nor did he condemn feminism. These are examples of how the church has reinterpreted the Biblical message to reflect our own modern biases.

Does this mean the Biblical messages are hopelessly archaic and irrelevant for today? No, certainly not. Actually the answer to understanding scripture is not hard. But a little un-learning is necessary. First, the Bible was not “written to me.” There is this myth that dogs much of popular American Christianity: that the Bible is God’s “love letter” to ME. No, JESUS is God’s “love letter to me,” period. The Bible tells us much about that love letter, but is not the letter itself. 

Speaking of letters, there are a number of them in the New Testament. Learn who they were written to and why. This is the second step, and related to the first: the letters were written to someone else other than you, but to whom? This is critical for it establishes what theologians call the “sitz im leben,” of scriptural passages: the cultural and religious situation in which author wrote. We often assume the authors somehow knew about our current situations (because God “wrote” the Bible?) and therefore jump to an application that was furthest from the authors’ minds.

Thirdly, there is this overwhelming desire to harmonize scripture into an homogeneous whole, where everything neatly fits and there are no contradictions. While the Early Church Fathers were aware of the problems, it has become a particularly dishonest and misleading practice of the church in the last two centuries. The Bible is not inerrant…get over it and move on! It is extremely discourteous to both scripture and the original authors to try to bend scripture into a mold it does not fit. This is basically the trap brought on by the Princeton School of Theology and the fundamentalist movement in American Christianity. It will affect one’s reading of scripture, and not in an honest fashion.

Fourthly, scripture is not meant to be read in a “flat” fashion. Not every word, not every sentence and not every book is equally important in understanding the gospel message: “God loves you.” Trying to see Christ in every line of scripture actually started quite early in the church. Some of it is apparent in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were written by anonymous sources. But he is not in every line of scripture. Again, this is related to the third erroneous attempt: harmonizing scripture. Furthermore, it can have disastrous results. The heinous practice of American slavery is the direct result of Biblical flat reading, the fundamentalist distrust of science is another.

And lastly, the Bible was never meant to be “weaponized.” While there are pronouncements of judgement in scripture (a topic due its own post alone), we are not the ones to do the judging. The gospel message is good news, not a legal indictment of impending punishment that we are (self-righteously) to post to nonbelievers doorsteps. Far too many of us, and I have been guilty too, bash non believers with various clobber passages to prove how “sinful” they are (and somewhat smugly, how we are not). The key element to sharing the gospel is love, not judgement.

Hopefully these suggestions will prove helpful. Thank you.

Pete Buttigieg and the Church’s Need for Repentance

I found a good article on Pete Buttigieg‘s run for the Presidency that has come up on Patheos:

(https://www.patheos.com/blogs/shanephipps/2019/03/31/pete-buttigieg-puts-conservative-christianity-on-damascus-road/)

I agree with the author’s general assessment, that Buttigieg’s run will be interesting. It highlights an interesting intersection of non-binary sexuality and progressivism, both political and religious. How contentious the Religious Right makes it, remains to be seen. Some of the more conservative commentators there have suggested that the Gay rights movement has reached a sort of critical mass, and is pushed on us everywhere. That being Gay will be secondary to what Buttigieg’s political agenda is. I would like to think so, that the conservative church is tired of attacking Gays for being Gay, but I have my doubts.

I agree, especially in light of the Religious Right’s adoption of a grossly immoral man as their choice to lead our country, that Buttigieg’s sexual orientation should be of little concern to them, or anyone for that matter, and they should give the same “pass” to Buttigieg that they have afforded the Adulterer in Chief, but I am not taking bets on it.

Western Christianity is changing, and that is concerning to the “old guard:” the Religious Right. The change primarily centers around, not the Bible as much as the collapse of Christendom: the old collusion of Church and State that gave the Church so much power over the direction society was going. Conservative Christianity in the West is still grasping for power, not realizing that the path to the Kingdom of God is not found in power. Historically, the ability to control the actions of the citizens of the State has been a hallmark of Christianity in the West: a blend of imperialism, nationalism and religion. 

And, of course, the hot buttons for the Right have centered predictably around “control” issues: control of other’s sexual behaviors, control of women’s bodies and control of minorities: the foreigner or strangers in our midst. In order to maintain control distance needs to be created between the “controllers” and those they wish to control. This is accomplished by enforcing an obsession with the “rules” of inclusion in the controlling group. This is usually referred to as “orthodoxy:” right belief. And, predictably, orthodoxy is defined by the “winning” or controlling group, in this case Western Christianity, which eventually “won” the battle and Eastern Orthodoxy did not, for a variety of reasons.

In the past, I have touched on what I feel is a gross misunderstanding of sin found among evangelicals, which is less about sin itself and its definition, and more about demanding repentance of the wrong individuals. It is the classic attempt to remove the speck of dust in one’s neighbor’s eye but not seeing clearly because of the log in one’s own eye. While we all sin (see Romans 5), as did Adam, one must remove the log first before attempting surgery on others.

If you look at the gospels as a whole, and how Jesus dealt with sin, he did not direct his calls for repentance to society as a whole. No, not the Romans, no matter how unjust or depraved that society was. Instead he concerned himself with Israel and Judaea’s need for repentance. It was primarily a call for the “church” of his day that the call went out to. The “unbelieving and perverse generation” Jesus refers to in Matthew 17:17 is the Religious hegemony of Second Temple Judaism, and their failure to step outside that comfortable bubble and be spiritually aware. The chapters preceding and following are all directed at this religious group. In chapter 15, he refers to them as blind guides, as concerned with exterior ritual and neglecting righteousness. Chapter 16 deals again with spiritual blindness, the inability to discern the “times:” that the religious elite couldn’t see what God was doing among Israel, and ultimately the Gentiles.

In chapter 17, Jesus begins to spell out the inevitable results of chastising organized religion: when cornered, religion that is in power will resort to violence rather than admit the need for repentance. In chapter 18, he is asked who is greatest in the Kingdom of God. Astonishingly it is not the influential, the powerful, those who know their doctrine, but it is the simplicity and powerlessness of a child that best represents “greatness” in the Kingdom. Of course this reflects the teachings on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 on who is “blessed” in the Kingdom. 

Historically the church has applied this admonishment of Jesus to repent as squarely applied to the Jews for their rejection of the Messiah. It has fueled antisemitism for nearly 2000 years, from about a century after Christ, through Martin Luther and his polemics, culminating in the holocaust. This is a total misrepresentation of Jesus’ criticism and who and what he was critiquing. He had compassion on Israel not hatred or contempt. But he was seriously concerned about the leadership of the Jews and, yes, their theology.

Jesus did things with scripture that show a certain disregard for the letter of the Law. Conservatives will often quote Matthew 5:17 “Don’t assume that I have come to destroy the Law or Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill;” as though this makes Jesus more fastidious than the Pharisees. When you take a closer look at what Jesus quotes from scripture, and what he doesn’t, a different picture emerges. This also mirrors the difference between the evangelical and progressive approach towards the Bible. Let me explain.

When Jesus begins his public ministry, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed Me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captives and recover of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19. It is telling what he refuses to quote from that passage, in which Isaiah had continued to say, “and the day of our God’s vengeance…” There is a profound redirection of scripture that takes place in Jesus’ teachings on violence and hatred of enemies. Paul, who started out persecuting the nascent young church, catches the drift of Jesus’ teachings as well.

As Jacob M. Wright points out:

“Before his conversion, Paul had read his Bible and concluded that he should commit violence in God’s name. After his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul completely reassessed how to understand scripture, leading him to a radically different understanding.

IN ROMANS 15, for example, Paul quotes several scriptural passages to illustrate how Gentiles “may glorify God for his mercy” because of the gospel (verse 9). Highly significant is what Paul omits from these passages:

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “I̶ ̶d̶e̶s̶t̶r̶o̶y̶e̶d̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶f̶o̶e̶s̶.̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶c̶r̶i̶e̶d̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶e̶l̶p̶,̶ ̶b̶u̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶n̶o̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶s̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶—̶t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶L̶O̶R̶D̶,̶ ̶b̶u̶t̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶i̶d̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶a̶n̶s̶w̶e̶r̶ ̶.̶.̶.̶ ̶H̶e̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶G̶o̶d̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶a̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶s̶ ̶m̶e̶,̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶p̶u̶t̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶G̶e̶n̶t̶i̶l̶e̶s̶ ̶u̶n̶d̶e̶r̶ ̶m̶e̶ ̶ … Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” [quoting Psalm 18:41–49]

Again, it says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people,f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶a̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶b̶l̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶s̶e̶r̶v̶a̶n̶t̶s̶;̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶t̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶e̶n̶e̶m̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶m̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶a̶t̶o̶n̶e̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶l̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶.̶” [Deuteronomy 32:43]

Paul has removed the references to violence against Gentiles, and recontextualized these passages to instead declare God’s mercy in Christ for Gentiles. This constitutes a major redefinition of how salvation is conceived: Instead of salvation meaning God “delivering” the ancient Israelites from the hands of their enemies through military victory (as described in Psalm 18, above), Paul now understands salvation to mean the restoration of all people in Christ, including those same “enemy” Gentiles.

In Romans 12:19-21, Paul again quotes Deuteronomy 32, citing the Lord’s declaration “it is mine to avenge” to argue that we should not seek vengeance, but rather work to “overcome evil with good.” In its original context, however, this passage was a celebration of vengeance: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay … I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.” This passage, which originally advocated vengeance and violence, is now used to promote enemy love.

Remarking on this pattern in Paul, New Testament scholar Richard Hays once joked that Paul would have surely flunked a seminary class in exegesis. But, as Hays himself argues, Paul was in fact intimately familiar with the original context of these passages, as were his readers. This is no case of sloppy exegesis. Paul is deliberately reversing the meaning—turning the tables in order to provoke his audience.”

While Jewish leadership used scripture to justify hatred and violence of enemies, both Paul and Jesus were selective about what to use in scripture and what not. It was the difference between weaponizing scripture and disarming scripture. As the church gained more power after Constantine, it began to weaponize scripture as had the Jews. It is the difference between actively looking for scriptures to support violence and bigotry and looking for scriptures that do not. And this is where we are today. Jews have moved on, facing centuries of persecution they have wrestled with the violence in scripture and for the most part are defenders of the powerless, knowing what it is like to face oppression.

So here’s my main point of all this: the progressive movement in Christianity is a movement of repentance. As in my own experience, which is not terribly unique, progressives are merely Christians that have been convicted about their own implication in a religion that has hurt others. And it is centered, in large part, about what I have mentioned above: are we to use scripture to demonize or oppress others, one can find verses for that, or are we to go beyond that and follow Christ’s example? Are we to be comfortable and complacent in a church that has continued to be unrepentant, or are we to call the church to repentance?

And this is the major bone of contention between conservatives, those who look for “gotcha” passages and progressives that do not. Between those who see no need for repentance and those who, like the tax collector, cry, “have mercy on me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Will this be a “Damascus experience” for the church as Shane Phipps hopes? Will the church honestly address its homophobia, or see it simply as another sign that society is drifting further away from orthodoxy as defined by evangelicalism?

  https://www.facebook.com/673104386/posts/10156456213449387?sfns=mo

Church: Giving Answers to the Wrong Questions

I am reading Diana Butler Bass at the moment, “Christianity After Religion.” Tucked away in the midsection of the book is some profound statements that I believe are spot-on in describing why traditional Christianity badly misses the mark when it comes to making a connection with the concerns and needs of modern Western society. Both traditional Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism, and Catholicism start with a concept of man’s sinfulness, that we are somehow “bad” in our core, and need to rid ourselves of that core to be forgiven. Usually unspoken but inferred, is that we should feel badly about ourselves and repent of that “sinful nature.” Sin, then, is basically pride in ourselves and the refusal to admit that we are “sinful.”

I understand how the church arrived at that conclusion, based on the gospel narratives involving John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus’ calls for repentance. But the church, in its zeal to be true to scripture, has failed to understand or acknowledge that, while “the field may be ripe for harvest,” the disease affecting the crop has changed. Hubris is no longer the issue. There is a different kind of “lostness” that affects Western culture, and the church exacerbates the problem by preaching against the sin of pride.

What was shocking about both Jesus’ and John’s message is how it attacked the notion that the Jews were automatically “saved” because of their birthright: being Jewish. They had a leg-up over the Gentiles. They had superior knowledge that their enemies, the Romans, didn’t have. It was this hubris that John the Baptist, Jesus and, especially Paul riled against. It insulted those in power: the religious leadership of the first century. It attacked the very foundation of religiosity: that believing the right things made you superior to those that didn’t believe the right things.

It is why Jesus chose a Samaritan, who didn’t believe the right things, to illustrate what a loving neighbor looks like. Imagine how that hurt the Pharisees’ pride! Fast forward to the 21st century and some things have changed, some things haven’t. We still have religious Pharisees, those who “believe the right things,” who call others to repent of their pride, not realizing that it is they who are prideful. But, I will let Diana Butler Bass speak for herself:

  As Western society has been overtaken by faceless consumerism and seemingly uncontrolled technologies, do men still feel like gods? I doubt it.

    Instead, in the last fifty years, most Europeans and North Americans—male, female, gay, straight, transgender, black, white, brown—have most likely succumbed to the sins of ‘triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness,’ having lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertaining technologies, and frenzied materialism. Indeed, philosophers and popular observers alike have noted that many people are now reconstructing their sense of self through nostalgia or consumerism. Saiving’s description* of female sinfulness has come to represent much of the human condition. Thus, ‘Who am I?’ may well be the driving theological question of the day and the starting point for reflection on spirituality—that lived experience of God longed for by so many people in the once Christian West.

   If sin was once seen as a twisted, self-centered quest to become God, then salvation was deliverance from self in order to become other-centered. If the self is a problem, then the church’s job was to help people diminish the self and make room for God. Thus, salvation was freedom from ourselves, our humanity, and our ambitions. The church taught that anything self-driven was evil and shaped communal prayer, ritual, worship, and penance around stamping out our humanness and striving instead for divine ideals of goodness. In the West, Catholics and Protestants took different routes to the same end—Catholics emphasized confession, penance, and sacraments as a way out of the human dilemma; Protestants (depending on the sort of Protestant) emphasized right belief, reordered hearts, and moral action as the paths away from sin. Fundamentally, however, the outcome of salvation was the same: pushing back, replacing or burying our human nature in favor of submitting to a transcendent—and often distant—God.

   This, I suspect, is the root of many people’s anxiety about church—that religion is the purveyor of a sort of salvation that does not address their lived struggles. So those who once ‘believed’ in this sort of salvation migrate away from the church, seeking instead something they call spirituality.

   Pride and hubris do not particularly seem to be humanity’s problem at the moment—they began to erode when the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.

…Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgement, damnation, and hellfire at the hands of a wrathful God; rather it is being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator. Although the word ‘salvation’ has come to mean ‘eternal life’ in most religious circles, it is helpful to return to the word’s Latin root salvus, meaning ‘whole,’ ‘sound,’ ‘healed,’ ‘safe,’ ‘well,’ or ‘unharmed,’ as a way to understand the spirituality of salvation.”**

Understanding this, that as humans we have lost connection with ourselves, and each other, that there is an aching aloneness that pervades much of Western culture, the church would find connecting to the real needs of humanity and society much simpler. A simple illustration of this pertains to parenting. Is it effective to belittle a child with low self-esteem or is it wiser to to build them up, show them how much they are valued and loved? 

Ironically, the sin of hubris, while not a problem typical of Western society as a whole, does have a hold on the church. The danger inherent to any exclusionary social construct is that the included can feel “above” the excluded. Coupled with the belief that the church gets it right while everyone not in one’s particular religious click gets it wrong, only strengthens that conviction. Furthering the disconnect is the fact that people see beyond the facade, that those outside the church see that Christians are really no better than themselves, and the air of religious superiority is merely self-righteousness. The church would do well to understand that the gospel message of repentance and conviction of sin was largely leveled at the traditional religion of the first century. The message Jesus preached was, in large part, a deconstruction of status quo religiosity. The failure to see Jesus’ call of repentance as applicable to the institutional church is due, in large part, to the modern Western influence of “individualism,” the Western “sawdust trail.”

It is this over-emphasis on individual sinfulness that has blinded the church to its corporate sinfulness, explaining why it has been so hard for the church to see its own culpability in racism and sexual exploitation. Institutional religion is very difficult to reform from within. As we have seen in the SBC over the last few years, and more recently in the  UMC denomination, reform meets great resistance from those who rely on the “perks” their religion gives them, almost always at the expense of others. When individuals within the church see that it is all a power play, they leave, and those outside the church find their worst suspicions validated. Once seen for what it is, it cannot be unseen.

But the church cannot offer solutions to society until itself has repented. This is a core issue. Next, the church needs to understand what people need…what they are looking for. What they are lacking. Can the church meet that need? That people are broken is a given, but what is the fix? Simply quoting cherry-picked Bible verses about salvation no longer works. The way out of the situation is simple. Live Christ, be Christ, show Christ. I will further elaborate in a future post.

*Theologian Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.”  

**Bass, pp. 181-183.

Has Christianity Outlived its Usefulness?

Has Christianity outlived its usefulness, or more to the point, is Christianity at all relevant any more in a post-modern world? Coming from an American evangelical background and graduating from an evangelical seminary, I could never have imagined I would even think these questions, let alone say them out loud. Traditional conservative Western forms of Christianity value conformity and certainty above doubt, which is seen as a lack of faith. Cognitive dissonance is to avoided at all costs. But what has been sacrificed on the altar of certainty is honesty and in the end, truth itself.

If you have followed my blog you know that the last half dozen years of my life have been a spiritual journey marked by a gradual deconstruction of what I had been taught about God, the church, the Kingdom of God and my place within the framework of a religion called Christianity. The seeds of my discontent actually go back much further, to my time in Bible School (Vanguard University, So. California) and deepening at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena California. Coming into contact with others holding more diverse views on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a follower of the Way, creates all sorts of dissonance and raises questions about the status quo one was raised in.

I think, what we have seen in the last couple hundred years is the unraveling of Christendom: the marriage of church and state, which began with Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. By the end of the 19th century Christendom was dead in Europe replaced largely by secularism. The late 19th century in America saw a last attempt at reviving a Christianity that was in full cardiac arrest. The paddles of fundamentalism were applied to the heart of a church that was clogged with racism, nationalism and white exceptionalism. The trouble was and still is, the rest of the world has moved on, not caring whether the patient live or dies.

Like the writing on the wall seen by Belshazzar in the book of Daniel, the world has observed the church in action and found it wanting. The incongruity of a church that seeks to control other’s sexual desires and actions yet is plagued by sexual scandal itself, that has replaced spirituality and unconditional love with doctrinal certitude and litmus tests for inclusion, is now seen as the judgmental, bigoted and unloving organization that it really is.

This is not, on my part, a chastisement of individuals within the church, many who are wonderful people, but of the institutionalization of spirituality, the attempt to contain and control people in the name of religion. In her book, “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass describes our post modern age as one of a spiritual quest, an awakening of spirituality. Less religious, in many ways, yes, but not necessarily less spiritual. For Bass and in others like Harvey Cox, what the world is experiencing is a new “spiritual awakening,” often devoid of historical religious trappings or taking a radical reinterpretation of what was past held to be immutable.

One of the major hurdles Christianity needs to overcome is its tribal nature. Religions sprung up as tribal deities were invoked as guardians, providers and for the fertility of crops and procreation. The Hebrew Scriptures are a good example of this phenomena. As such, tribal gods competed with each other and religions clashed, often violently. As tribes grew and became city states and eventually nations, the tribal spirit of competition and violence traveled along, largely unchanged. Religion was exclusionary by nature and was linked to “belonging” to a particular tribe or nation. Religion and state partnered in controlling the citizenry, enforcing religious laws. There often was no distinction between the secular and the religious.

Perhaps all of life is to be understood spiritually, and nothing, if done with understanding, is purely secular. But if all is spiritual then what do we make of the tribal competition of the world’s religions? What do we do with the almost immediate schisms that plagued Protestantism following the nailing of the 95 Thesis? Are we as spiritual beings, reflectors of God’s image to continue dividing ourselves into groups that have a “corner” on spiritual “truth?” Is spirituality to be defined by having that corner on religious doctrine?

And this leads into the second of what I believe to be a major shortcoming of the Church: the replacement of an encounter with the Divine with “knowing and defending the right views.” The Bible, for example, becomes a battleground, a bastion of facts and rules to be believed in, or your faith is in question. Without going down the rabbit hole of inerrancy that conservatives created a century and a half ago to combat liberalism, I will say that this particular theological framework, designed to take all the guessing out of Christianity, has pretty much nailed the lid of the coffin down on conservative evangelicalism. By forcing allegiance to this boondoggle of a belief system, severe damage has been done to the Christian faith in the West. Worse yet, it has engaged theologians in a worthless task of defending it instead of working on what manifesting the love of Christ in the world should actually look like.

The authoritarianism that comes from a literalist understanding of scripture, as I have pointed out in past posts, denies any meaningful reform within the conservative church, and puts it at odds with any progressive advancement or understanding in a postmodern society. Rather than a source of wisdom or a tome of spiritual truths, the Bible becomes a book (singular) of “facts.” Those “facts” are then marshaled to support the belief that Iron Age concepts of family life, governance and spirituality were meant to be adhered to today. This is why conservative churches practice subservience of women, why men try to control women’s bodies, why those churches obsess over sexual practices, have purity balls, support nationalism (racism in disguise) and abhor sexually non-binary people.

Finally, fundamentalism in Christianity, mirrors a broader movement of fundamentalism worldwide, both secular and religious. As progressivism gains more steam, the backlash has been immediate, and in places, severe. While evangelicalism declines in progressive societies like Europe, Canada and the US, it grows in Third World countries where totalitarian or fascist regimes give it sustenance. The recent resurgence in the US of a fearful, largely White conservative religious/political voting block represents one such example of the conservative backlash among modernist evangelicals trying to stem the tide of progressive reforms. It reflects the ancient belief that, like the Tower of Babel, races, peoples and nations are to be kept separate, humanity is not one, my nation is better than your nation, my race superior to your race. In short, it is an attempt to divide rather than unite. Because this is counter to the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus and because it is creates an unhealthy society, Christianity, as a religion, must ultimately fail for the good of humanity. A church that actually follows Jesus must rise instead. Will it?

Further reading:

Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass

The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox

Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray

Jesus Untangled, Keith Giles

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger E. Olson

Smallfoot: Too “Liberal” for Evangelicals?

Last week I saw a delightful little cartoon, “Smallfoot” in the theater. I expected a silly kid’s cartoon but was surprised at the postmodern message. I found it had a much deeper message than I expected. And of course, was curious to see the evangelical response as the movie’s agenda was to reassure kids that it was ok to question dogma, that it was not bad to question authority.

I won’t go into the details of the storyline but it involved a society of yetis whose culture revolved around the sayings/rules written on small stones and worn as a robe by the spiritual leader of the yeti clan. The stones were unquestionably excepted as propositional truth. Sound familiar? In short, the stones were devised by the “stonekeepers” to protect the yeti clan from the dangers “out there” beneath the clouds, i.e., humans.

The parallels to modern evangelicalism were not lost on the evangelical gatekeepers: the Gospel Coalition. The response was, swift and negative. First off, the author, Bret McCracken uses a typical evangelical response by reversing a fundamentalist principal and applying it as a negative to liberals:

“If one stone is wrong, then others could be as well,” one yeti says, voicing an argument that is suspiciously similar to liberal claims that any seeming inconsistency or scientifically implausible thing in the Bible means the whole thing is up for grabs.”

This is odd, because it is not actually a liberal statement, but one fundamentalists use constantly as a reason for the inerrancy of scripture. The Bible as a whole must be entirely inerrant or it cannot be trusted at all. It is the “house of cards” analogy that fundamentalist like James Orr (1844-1913) rejected outright as “a most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up.” I had a rather lengthy and unproductive dialogue with an inerrantist on my blog last year, Inerrancy At any rate, this is an entirely misleading and dishonest assessment of progressive thought on the inspiration of scripture.

McCracken goes on to state “Smallfoot joins films like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (among many others) in showing how seeking truth can be disruptive and dangerous, but ultimately freeing. These films also show how safe, utopian communities, insulated from the dangers outside (whether in different people or different ideas), never work if they are sustained by deception and fear-based control.”

I wonder if Mr. McCracken actually understands how evangelicalism works? He goes on to declare that the above is not the problem but seeing knowledge as “power” is: “This sort of faith is about fear and control, suppressing knowledge in order to preserve power. And thus the flipside is also about power. Knowledge, curiosity, facts, discovery—these are framed in the film as tools of empowerment. Taking down the man. Breaking free from systems of control. Putting power in new hands. Getting woke.”

If only the religious right was not about power, but it is naive to think otherwise and this is where The Gospel Coalition’s blindside resides: the inability to see that the Religious Right is ALL about power. By nature, authoritarian structures are not question based, but based on the few in power who establish the rules of governance. I will address whether or not evangelicalism is a threat to a free democratic society in a future post.

”Taking down the man,” is the real fear here. Who is the “man?” Well, white evangelical men is the obvious answer. The framers of the Democratic experiment known as the United States…all white men. In American fundamentalist Protestant circles, yep, all white men. And what else is the doctrine of eternal torment and hell for unbelievers about if it isn’t about “fear-based control?” American culture has been framed almost exclusively from the perspective of white male privilege, including conservative Christianity.

Evangelicalism as a whole is based on “if-then” propositions. Only, the ifs are not really ifs but self-evident “truths” that are excepted unquestionably, and that my friend is what the movie is getting at. Roger E Moore is one evangelical who “gets” this and has written why this propositional approach among evangelicals prevents true reforms within the movement. The stones in the movie are accepted as “facts,” even though they are not. This is a problem when we approach religions based on doctrinal “facts,” especially when the truths are not self-evident and at times contradictory.

McCracken goes on to say, “The film’s obsession with power is certainly of a piece with the 2018 zeitgeist, where gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL, are partisan, bitter battlefields over power. To our shame, many evangelicals have indeed become more known for our desperate grip on power than our Christ-like, gospel-shaped lives. And grievously, science, knowledge, and “facts” have also become pawns in the great power battles of our time.

Smallfoot mirrors this dysfunctional world and sadly encourages the next generation to follow suit. It shrinks knowledge into a power play wherein we get woke and the old order gets gets exposed.”

In this McCracken unwittingly betrays the problem with evangelicalism and its interaction with the non-evangelical: it views itself in a cosmic power struggle with society, “gender, race, politics, class, even the NFL.” Rather than seeking ways to work WITH society to achieve a better world, the world’s attempts are suspect and to be avoided. Unfortunately, this puts most evangelicals and certainly their leadership actually working against a better, more loving and exclusive society.

The movie ends on a happy note with the barrier between humans and yetis torn down and the beginnings of a diverse cooperative society. But this does not fit the evangelical narrative at all. First of all, it removes the “us vs them” mentality that shapes much of evangelicalism. Authoritarian structures need inferiors in order to maintain their superior status. The Romans had the Christians, Hitler had the Jews. Fundamentalism has had numerous inferior people groups in the past: Jews, Catholics, Liberals and black athletes who dare suggest there is a race problem in America.

Secondly, authoritarian structures like evangelicalism and fundamentalism function on the premise that there is unity in conformity. Conformity plays a big part in the movie. The yeti clan moves along smoothly because no one is allowed to rock the boat. Let me be very clear about this, evangelicalism does not entertain much diversity. Authoritarian structures are not set up for diversity. They crumble under non conformity. Conformity was the strength of the Roman Catholic Church for a millennia. Because Protestants could not agree on the “stones” to follow, but still had to have absolute conformity, they split into numerous denominations, and at numerous times actually killed each other. So it is not the search for answers that is the danger here, but denial of that search in favor of a “hive mentality.” In fact, those in yeti society that are nonconformists are forced to meet in secret to avoid being astracized. Christians should do well to remember that once they had to meet secretly in the catacombs because they did not fit into an authoritarian society.

Perhaps a more balanced assessment can be found Here 

“One of the characters in “Smallfoot” says something like this: “Truth is complicated and can be scary, but it’s better than believing a lie.” Truth is what we should always seek. We should blindly accept nothing, and our Lord does not ask us to do so. He has given us a world which showcases His creativity and declares His glory. He has given us His Word which resounds with truth and reason. Its claims can be answered. Its Author can be trusted. Its Savior can be called upon. Faith is not blindly accepting the flawed traditions of men… it is trusting completely in the One who made us and sustains us. And when we do so, we see that empty traditions, the world’s lies and the secular teachings of mere man that we may have once believed now ring false.”

“Much of the allegory will be far above the heads of very young children but should provide lots to think about for preteens through adults. Can a lie be a “good” lie? Should we ever be willing to deny the truth in order to protect others? Is it okay to question what we have always been taught? I am actually thankful for a film which presents a platform for such thought… or better yet, discussion. Even if this film may have been intended to cause viewers to doubt religious teachings, it is always good to examine why we believe what we believe.”

And with that I agree. It is always good to examine what we believe.

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https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/smallfoot-saying-faith-science/

https://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2018/smallfoot2018.html

Iron Age Evangelicalism: How Veneration of the Bible has Hurt the Church

Well, it’s been one of those weeks. I sprained my back badly a month ago, so I’ve been dealing with nagging pain, making it hard to concentrate on a number of things and get any work done. In addition, my attempts to address the church’s responsibility towards social justice online have been met with contempt, anger and accusations of heresy from evangelicals that have read my comments. It can be downright discouraging.

I’ve addressed some of what I believe are the underlying reasons for evangelical hostility to social justice in a couple of previous posts. I’d like to discuss an issue that has broader implications for evangelical theology and social interaction: that of their views on the ontology of scripture itself. The underlying principal for the Protestant critique and eventual separation from Catholicism was a renewed emphasis on the canonical scripture: the Bible.

As a result “sola scriptura” became the Protestant battle cry. Unfortunately, that has led to some stagnation in the Protestant church. It would seem ironic, that a renewed enthusiasm for scripture would actually impede the church from growing spiritually, but I believe it has. Over and over last week I heard the complaint that “social justice” wasn’t in the Bible, or that it wasn’t biblical. That it was the “spirit of this age,” that the government has no right to force us to subsidize the poor, etc.. Of course, this was similar to Christian complaints against abolition preceding the American Civil War.

I think the reason for this vehement denial lies in the way evangelicals, especially those that are closet fundamentalists, venerate scripture. Scripture is the final word, literally. There is no need to improve, how could one possibly improve upon God’s very own words? In a word, evangelicals tend to get stuck in the Iron Age, or even the Bronze Age. The sociological mores, ethical and moral situations and solutions of 2-3 thousand years ago, become, de facto, God’s solutions. This has caused all sorts of problems when it comes to social justice, from slavery, to women’s equality, Gay rights and the death penalty.

The veneration of scripture has, in some reformed traditions, especially among Calvinists, effectively replaced the work of the Holy Spirit. Cessationists like John MacArthur, believe much of the prophetic work of the Holy Spirit ended after the Apostolic Age. The prophetic function of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers and the subsequent corrections for the church are viewed with suspicion and criticized as too subjective. Additionally, the Bible has, in evangelical parlance, replaced, or is given much greater attention as the “Word of God,” than Jesus himself as the Word of God.

When the church views scripture in this fashion, ethics get “frozen in time.” Women are forever subordinate to men, Gays are always an “abomination,” war becomes “just,” the death penalty becomes justifiable, killing one’s enemies becomes a part of the Kingdom narrative and God’s “final solution” involves violence. As a result, the church becomes unable to respond in a relevant way to changing social events. This is what the “culture wars” are about: the church’s inadequacy to deal with change.

Following the Bible is vastly different than following Jesus. The Bible is not a repository of “facts” about God, nor is it a definitive guide to “Christian living and ethics.” It points to something much greater than itself. In our churches we should have more “Jesus study” than “Bible study.” This would involve grappling with an ever changing social and political environment and asking how would the Holy Spirit have us respond in a way that does justice and shows love and mercy. It would be WWJD on steroids. Jesus becomes the touchstone for us rather than the Bible itself.

Unfortunately, the inability of much of the church to think further than the Iron Age, or the 16th century reformers reinterpretation of the Bible has made the gospel message largely irrelevant. Reformed theologians can’t seem to move past the shadow of John Calvin, regurgitating the same thoughts over and over again. This is not how the church should move forward in the 21st century. This is not how the church should meet new challenges. We need to be looking forward, not backward. If not, evangelicalism a century from now will be viewed as a short-lived stumbling block to the Kingdom of God and not a major contributor to its furtherance.